Downscaled hopes for an upscale mall

The Natick Collection was envisioned as a destination for suburban shoppers searching for luxury goods, but sales at some high-end boutiques, some merchants say, are stagnating, and other stores are opting out of the mall altogether.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / May 4, 2008

NATICK - On a recent spring day, Neiman Marcus is a ghost town. Almost everything is on sale at Calvin Klein. Gucci has delayed its opening several times, and Italian designer Piazza Sempione has bailed on its lease entirely.

The highly anticipated Natick Collection, a suburban bastion of luxury shopping where some rents are higher than coveted Newbury Street, is off to a slow start, according to retail analysts, store owners, managers, and employees at more than a dozen stores.

Some merchants blame the weak traffic on a potential recession and anemic consumer spending. Indeed, across the country retailers are seeing fewer shoppers, shutting stores, or filing for bankruptcy as people pull back on discretionary spending and worry more about paying for basics like milk and gas.

Yet others say the problem may go even deeper, that high-end designers and top-notch fashion in the suburbs simply haven't caught on. Natick was supposed to be the next fashion frontier, debuting the state's first Nordstrom and first suburban Neiman Marcus as part of a multimillion-dollar 500,000-square-foot expansion that opened last fall.

But the hype has fallen short in this town 20 miles west of Boston. After a brisk holiday season, traffic has slowed, on some days, to a near standstill, merchants say. The older part of the mall, which features sta ples like Macy's and Gap, still sees a crush of shoppers on the weekends, they say. And while Nordstrom is popular, much of the vast new wing - with soaring skylights, concierge service, and fake birch trees - often remains empty.

"We had a rough winter," said Betty Riaz, owner of trendy boutique Stil, who pays upwards of $100 per square foot for the Natick store, which is more than her Newbury Street shop. "It's been quiet. Even if you have money, you may not have taste. We have to educate our customers on style. It's hard. I thought it would be easier in Natick."

General Growth Properties, which runs the mall, said it has not heard concerns about sluggish sales and that the slowdown in consumer spending and luxury shopping has not had an impact on the mall. Michael McNaughton, General Growth's vice president for asset management Northeast, said business at stores in the original part of the mall has "grown tremendously" since the expansion opened last fall, and that the new wing has exceeded expectations. But he declined to provide specific traffic or sales numbers.

McNaughton disputed the suggestion that Natick wasn't ready for high fashion, but added: "Not every retailer is for every customer."

In recent weeks, stores have stepped up promotions in an attempt to lure people into the luxury wing, where $3,000 Louis Vuitton bags and $500 shaving kits are plentiful. For the month of April, Neiman Marcus offered free Bellini cocktails every Saturday afternoon as part of a "Sip and Shop" event to showcase its designer handbags. Bright pink banners hung from the ceiling near Sears in the older section of the mall, beseeching customers: "Neiman Marcus. Go Back. Turn Right. Shop Fabulous."

Last month, Lululemon Athletica hosted "Zen Wednesday" outside Neiman Marcus, offering a free yoga class followed by tapas and juice elixirs served by the French restaurant Sel de la Terre. Two weeks ago, boutique Stil hosted a luncheon and fashion show in the middle of the mall.

Retail analysts say General Growth may have misread the demographics and overestimated the reach of the shopping center. While there is ample wealth in this region - the average household income is about $110,000, nearly double the state average - there is still a culture of buttoned-up Yankees who aren't accustomed to indulgent spending on luxury goods, according to Madison Riley, a retail analyst at Kurt Salmon Associates in Boston. And the younger moms paying attention to fashion are more likely to buy a Burberry blanket for their baby carriage than $350 designer jeans for themselves.

"There has been a culture in the Boston area of that Yankee thriftiness, even when one had money," Riley said. "That's changed in the city of Boston but the mentality still resides in the suburbs, and that is impacting Natick."

Boston, with its influx of tourists, wealthy empty-nesters, and stylish yuppies, has had better success proving its fashion sense, keeping busy new stores like Jimmy Choo and Gucci. Fashionistas on the North and South shores are also more likely to hit the Boston Neiman Marcus and the shops on Newbury, rather than head out to the western suburbs, according to Mike Tesler, president of Retail Concepts, a consultant firm in Norwell who was not involved in the project.

The combination of Gucci's multiple delays, the pullout of Piazza Sempione, and other vacancies in the new wing has worried some retailers about the future of the mall. Gucci would not comment on the reasons behind its delays, and Piazza Sempione would only confirm that it had backed out of the lease in Natick.

Tesler, who recently visited Natick Collection for a business lunch, said only three other cars were parked in the new premium lot, which charges $5 and is closer to the luxury wing. Over the five times he's visited the mall in recent months, the number of cars in the lot has decreased with each trip.

Several Neiman Marcus employees, not authorized to speak publicly to the Globe, complained of very slow sales and Neiman bosses instructing employees to make calls to the same customers two to three times a week to seek more business.

Retail analysts believe Natick will ultimately be successful, but it may take some time.

"At cocktail parties in Chicago, LA, and New York, they talk about fashion the way we talk about sports. The focus on fashion is less and less as you get out in the suburbs," Tesler said. "That is gradually changing, but there's some education and work to be done."

Paula Brennan, assistant store manager at The Art of Shaving, said the new section of the mall is pretty empty during the week, and even during busy weekends, people seem to be merely window shopping. The upscale shaving business has stayed afloat because of customers who work in the city, bought products at the Copley Place shop, and are looking for replenishments at the Natick store, near where they live.

Sel de La Terre partner Frank McClelland said his French restaurant has met expectations in Natick, but attributed the success to its regional reputation.

"We're more of a destination and not reliant on mall traffic as much as other retailers," McClelland said.

The economy certainly isn't helping Natick, with luxury retailers, once the pillar of strength, showing signs of lost momentum nationwide. Louis Constant, a salesman at Tommy Bahama, which sells high-end resort wear, said he blames slow business in Natick on customers being more conservative with their spending. Across the industry, sales at stores open at least a year have fallen recently at upscale merchants, including Saks Inc. and Nordstrom, which reported declines of 2.9 percent and 9.1 percent respectively.

But in Natick, department store Nordstrom is one of the exceptions. Retail analysts say the newness of Nordstrom - Natick was the first location in the state - along with its broad price points make it more accessible for shoppers, offering $1,200 Versace top coats and $30 T-shirts. Nordstrom spokesman Michael Boyd said the company has "been really pleased by the results we've had in Natick," but would not comment on whether sales had met or exceeded expectations.

Riaz, owner of boutique Stil, said she has followed Nordstrom's lead and changed the mix of her wares in Natick to include more lower-priced items over the past two months. She now sells T-shirt dresses for under $100 alongside her $800 dresses.

Nadia Nielsen, 21, of Wayland, recently had a dose of sticker shock after walking out of Neiman Marcus empty-handed. As she headed to the older part of the mall, Nielsen questioned the idea behind the upscale shopping experience.

"Out here in the suburbs, people are pretty casual," she said. "When you go to Whole Foods and wear heels, you feel too dressed up."

But the Natick Collection does have its hard-core loyalists, like 32-year-old Vivian Wexler.

"Yes, it's conspicuous consumption at its finest, and I am ashamed to admit that it rocked my world down to the core," Wexler said. "However, even if you're not a die-hard capitalist, you'll be astounded at how . . . convenient it is to go to one mall and be able to get your entire list of holiday gifts. They've got such a diversity of stores that it's mind-boggling."

But her last visit to Natick? December.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at

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